Menchov wins the TT and regains golden jersey

Heras rides well for fifth, despite 10" penalty

Denis Menchov (Rabobank) recovered the golden jersey of the Vuelta a España by winning the 48km individual time trial in Lloret de Mar with a time of 1:00:54. Yesterday's leader Roberto Heras (Liberty-Würth) did a very good TT, considering his climber's build, and he finished fifth in 1:01:43, but was later penalised 10 seconds for cutting the course. The Russian now leads the race by 47 seconds over the Spaniard, who is his closest rival. Ruben Plaza (Comunidad Valenciana) finished second today in 1:01:03, while Francisco Mancebo (Illes Balears) was an excellent third in 1:01:31.

Menchov had already won the first time trial in Granada that opened the Vuelta. Thus, today was his second leader's jersey. "I'm happy, this is a great satisfaction for me," said a content Menchov post-stage. "It's something impressive for me. After all the time I spent working on improving my time trial style, in the end I could make it. I'm happy now and I want to enjoy this moment." About his chances of victory overall, he said, "I keep on thinking positively. It's very early to say, I don't say I'm the favourite. We will see."

Roberto Heras was relatively happy with his time, but slightly annoyed at himself after being penalised for cutting the course on the main descent. If I had known it, I wouldn't have done it," Heras said in his defense. "I didn't do it on purpose. I hope this time [the 10 seconds penalty] won't be decisive for the Vuelta a España. I think it's very sad and I don't want to get in polemics." Heras added that it didn't affect his mental state and that he gives this time the same importance as the 6 bonus seconds he gained in Stage 7.

On Menchov's ride, Heras commented, "Denis Menchov performed so very well. It wasn't as demanding as I thought it would be. I think I leave Lloret in a good position. We still have many mountain stages, very hard stages like the ones in Andorra and Cerler, as well as Lagos and Covadonga. We are all very close in time."

Francisco Mancebo (Illes Balears) was also satisfied ending third in the TT. "I'm really tired, but happy," he said. "We, the favourites, were pretty close to each other, our times were very similar." About the Vuelta to come, he stated, "Menchov will give emotion to it, a more attacking cycling, even though it seems Liberty has the best team."

How it unfolded

179 riders took the start in Lloret de Mar with Jose Ivan Gutierrez (Illes Balears) the only rider not to sign in. Gutierrez would normally have been one of the favourites for today's stage, but after crashing three times already in the Vuelta, he decided his injuries were too severe to continue. The first rider who began the time trial was the last on the GC: Jose Antonio Garrido (Quick Step). He finished in 1:13:32 seconds, which was one of the slower times on the day. But it didn't take long before a good mark was set by Niels Scheuneman (Rabobank) in 1:05:03.

Isidro Nozal (Liberty-Würth), a time trial specialist and winner in Albacete TT in 2003, didn't perform to his potential and finished in 1:09:54. Second overall in the Vuelta two years ago to Heras, Nozal is now very much a domestique for his former rival. Magnus Bäckstedt (Liquigas-Bianchi) also wasn't too convincing in 1:08:10. But minutes later, Uwe Peschel (Gerolsteiner) finished the best, smashing Scheuneman's time in 1:02:33.

The Mediterranean coastal town of Lloret de Mar is hosting its first Vuelta stage since 1991, but it seemed that the Mediterranean air didn't agree with Santiago Botero (Phonak), another TT specialist. The Colombian had won both time trials in the 2001 Vuelta, among other triumphs. He finished today in 1:07:47, a long way from the leaders. Later, Botero's teammate and compatriot Victor Hugo Peña clocked a very good time, better than Peschel's, in 1:02:30. But, Ruben Plaza (Comunidad Valenciana) rode one better stopped the chrono in 1:01:03 seconds, 1'27 faster than the Peña.

On the other hand, Mancebo and Carlos Sastre (CSC) also did good races against the clock. The first clocked a time of 1:01:31, and the second, a similar time of 1:01:35, just four seconds slower. Another rider who did very well was Tom Danielson (Discovery Channel) who finished sixth in 1:02:10 and moved himself up from 11th to fifth overall.

At that point of the afternoon, all the riders had already passed through the first intermediate check point (km 10.8). There, the leader Heras (14:14) was 2 seconds slower than Menchov (14:12). But at the second check (km 21.4), the Russian came through in 31:14, and increased the difference between himself and Heras, who only came through in 31:41.

Amazingly for a grand tour stage, the course wasn't completely closed, and half of the road was taken up by light Sunday traffic. Heras took some risks on the descent, weaving through the witches hats that marked out the course. He risked a time penalty as a result, because all the other riders stayed on the correct side of the witches hats. After the stage, the race jury docked him 10 seconds, certainly more than he gained by cutting the course.

At the third check point (km 35.6) the gap between the two riders was bigger: Menchov rode in 45'00 and Heras in 45'40. Despite a headwind in the final kilometres, the Rabobank rider increased the difference to the Liberty man up to 49 seconds at the finish line, sprinting across the line to knock nine seconds off Plaza's time.

Heras said yesterday that he shouldn't be discarded among the favourites today, and he proved he was right. Finishing fifth in Lloret de Mar was a more than respectable performance for someone who specialises in climbing mountains. But Heras has improved his time trialling in recent years and today was another example of it. At the end of it all, Denis Menchov regained the leader's jersey by 47 seconds over Heras.

Stage 10 - September 5: La Vall d'en Bas-Ordino-Arcalis, 206.3 km

This is the first Pyrenean stage of the Vuelta. It will be a hard day for all the riders, climbing mountains throughout the stage. The stage has four big mountains: Coll de Canes (Category 2, 1130m above sea level) at km 21, Port de Collada de Tosses (Cat. 1, 1800m) at km 77.7, Collet de Montaup (Cat 1, 1980m) at km 178 and Ordino-Arcalis (Cat. special, 2220 m) where the stage finishes. It's very probable that Roberto Heras will attack on his favourite terrain. Denis Menchov and the rest will have to hang on if they want to keep their chances of winning this Vuelta.

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